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magazine / apr09

April 2009 issue

Vikings in the Canadian Arctic

Strands of evidence
In Europe, the Vikings were feared as bloodthirsty pirates. But in the Canadian Arctic, archaeologist Pat Sutherland’s research is revealing that their 11th-century voyages were about trading rather than raiding.
Excerpt of story by Heather Pringle

In the mid-14th century, a scribe set down tales of kings that bards once told in the feasting halls of Iceland. A man of religion and learning, he recorded them in an illustrated manuscript, the largest and grandest book ever produced in medieval Iceland. But as the scribe dutifully copied down stories of royal triumphs and treachery, he could not resist including a saga of a very different sort. In his neat, black script, he inscribed an account of a restless young Viking chieftain, Leif Ericsson, who sailed from Greenland around the year 1000 AD to search for his fortune in a mysterious new land to the west.


The scribe described how Ericsson and a crew of 35 men crossed the sea and made land along an unfamiliar northern coast. The young lord hungered to size it up, so he ordered his men to cast anchor near shore, then rowed off in a small boat with his companions. The new place, however, seemed harsh and barren. “There they found no grass, but large glaciers covered the highlands and the land was like a single flat slab of rock to the sea. This land seemed of little use.” Ericsson named the place Helluland, meaning “stoneslab land.” Then he and his men sailed southward, hoping to find greener pastures.

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